Does food taste better when you’re in a happy setting? I think it does. Even if you start out indifferent or perhaps grumpy, then surround yourself with cheerful folks, I believe you’ll like your meal more.
I’m not talking smarmy, like a McDonald’s commercial where bright and shiny goofballs risk choking themselves since they’re laughing so hard as they stuff their gaping maws with French fries. But sincere, with pleasant people happy to be with each other and sharing well-crafted food and drink.
Case in point: the new Salt & Stone in Kenwood. Since opening in December, it’s taken a few months for this casual-chic global California eatery and oyster bar to gain traction. That horrible wildfire. Problems with the phone system leading would-be-guests to think the place was closed for a spell. And near-deafening noise levels in the dining room.
But I’m now glad to say that Salt & Stone has found its home, brimming with seemingly happy staff, happy customers, and what I think must be a happy kitchen. The place feels really good as soon as you walk in, and the upbeat mood elevates what is a lengthy, but relatively straightforward seafood, steak and Cal-classic menu.
It’s a welcome rebirth. For decades, the Highway 12 roadhouse was a popular neighborhood hangout of various names — most recently since 1987, operating as Kenwood Restaurant. Then, in 2013, ownership changed, the menu turned fussy, the cooking was uneven, and the restaurant fell out of favor with Sonoma Valley diners. Few of us were surprised when it closed two years ago.
Then, this past July, chef David LaMonica and his wife, Diane LaMonica, took over. The former owners of Mendocino’s acclaimed Cafe Beaujolais tweaked the décor to be more contemporary in a palate of gray and ivory, with weathered wood, farmhouse mirrors in the dining room, and — I love this –– a huge plaster mural of the parading farm animals catering a dinner. The fabulous piece was left over from the former Kenwood Restaurant, originally rescued from San Francisco’s famed Poodle Dog restaurant after surviving the 1906 earthquake.
The staff clearly likes their new jobs. They welcome us with smiles, take care of tables outside their stations when the place gets busy (and it does), and chat folks up if those folks seem to want it. One early evening, I admired a bartender spending at least 15 minutes with an elderly gentleman settled at the bar. He discussed nearly every dish to determine what he might like, offered him samples of wine to figure out his perfect glass, and asked him how his nearby home had fared through the fires.
Over several visits, it became a familiar scene. Neighborhood friends greeting other neighborhood friends. Groups coming in, telling servers they were eager to give the spot another try in its new incarnation. Local legend and Glen Ellen resident Tommy Smothers visiting with fellow guests in between bites of his own dinner one evening.
Many dishes are delicious here, starting with our region’s ubiquitous oysters, served raw ($2.75 each/$30 dozen), but also as ceviche with fiery habanero ($16 for four), maitre d’ baked with parsley, garlic, onions and butter ($12), or casino served hot with bacon, leeks, red pepper and melted manchego ($13).
And some dishes lean to upscale, such as an ahi poke appetizer mixed with diced cucumber and molded into a tower crowned with seaweed and microgreens ($18). Flavor was good, though presentation was sloppy, the plate scattered with potato gaufrette and wiped with wasabi cream and shiso oil. Same thing with the salmon ($25) — the crispy skin fish tasted very nice, but looked a mess plopped over a loose pile of lemon couscous ladled in thick salsa verde, curried fennel wands and citrus segments.
Salt & Stone
Where: 9900 Highway 12, Kenwood
When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thurs.-Mon., 2:30 to 9 p.m. Tues. & Weds.
Contact: 707-833-6326, saltstonekenwood.com
Cuisine: Steak, Seafood, California
Price: Expensive, entrées $18-$34
Summary: The longtime favorite roadhouse is reborn as a notable new neighborhood destination for steaks, seafood and communal cheer.